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Breakthroughs Magazine

Special Report - Environmental Renaissance: PNNL researchers master the art of predictive sciences that use environmental stories of the past to paint a balanced future

Forecasting future water supplies leaves stakeholders soaked in uncertainties

Apple orchards, vineyards, hydroelectric power, municipal water supplies, and salmon runs all depend on the same oversubscribed resource—water. Even in the snowy Northwest, water is a finite resource with an infinite number of competing demands.

Global climate change furthers the region's water problems. Water availability is dominated by seasonal release and storage from mountain snowpacks. Scientific models suggest several climate change effects, including significantly reduced snowpack, wetter winters, drier summers, and changes to river temperatures and flows that are tough on migrating salmon.

Moreover, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other water appropriations and permitting requirements impose strict limitations on how stakeholders can impact water issues.

Balancing Needs and Resources

To combat this dilemma, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is developing an integrated research agenda. Balancing the region's water availability and needs, energy requirements and desire for a sustainable ecosystem, the Laboratory is assisting stakeholders in making better water allocation decisions. This approach taps into PNNL's expertise in integrated earth and energy systems modeling, water treatment technologies and scientific decision support systems.

Understanding the interdependence of energy and water for alternative energy source development is central to achieving a regional water balance. Therefore, stakeholders need to better forecast water availability to make better usage decisions. These forecasts are needed at geographical scales ranging from local irrigation diversion points to the entire Columbia Basin.

Understanding Future Water Resources

The Northwest Regional Collaboratory, a PNNL-led, NASA-funded collaboration of two national laboratories and four regional universities, works to combine satellite images into watershed models in order to fill in the gaps between immediate weather forecasts and estimates based on historical data.

These models support streamflow forecasting and can be used to refine decisions about water releases from reservoirs for salmon, irrigation and municipal use as well as for the production of electricity.

Growing Demands, Diminishing Resources

Ensuring future water supplies meet the Northwest's growing population and vibrant agricultural base, as well as the water and energy needs for both, is vital. Citizens and industry alike are seeking out more electricity to maintain their livelihoods. Hydropower—while an attractive and clean way to supply energy—adds an additional demand on water resources. More energy = more water.

The interdependence of water and energy lies squarely in the center of major environmental and economic problems in the region. Population growth and economic development are placing higher demands for energy to access and distribute water supplies; this includes pumping more groundwater to meet irrigation requirements. The development of alternative energy resources such as coal-bed methane and oil shale has raised major concerns for water consumption, quality and management.

Teaming for Solutions

With so many variables pressing this one single resource, PNNL's approach to addressing the issues is to team with other interested parties and stakeholders. The Northwest Regional Collaboratory is but one example of the Laboratory's collaborations with other science and technology institutions to address regional water issues.

PNNL and the Idaho National Laboratory are investigating the integration of hydropower and wind energy to meet water and energy needs of agriculture. The case study will help develop strategies for alternative energy sources as our region faces increasing demands for both.

Water is the common currency of our economy and an essential part of the Northwest's quality of life. The science and technology community must provide a sound foundation for the sustainable use of this limited resource. PNNL is working with regional partners to provide the science and technology necessary to meet this crucial need.

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